Why human intelligence is imperative in tech-savvy world of spies

The spy game has to be upped when hardcore terrorists are involved

India Army AP

IN THE UNUSUALLY cold August of 2019, after the Union government repealed Article 370, there was a communication blackout in Kashmir and suddenly all ‘chatter’ died down. Chatter here being the intelligence term used to describe the volume of communication between terrorists or spies, monitored by agencies.

The advent of technology and fencing of international borders are not only stopping infiltrators today, but also human assets who used to move across freely for a chit chat here and there. ― R.K. Yadav, a former R&AW officer

Intelligence reports claimed more than 200 terrorists were still hiding in the valley, but hardly any could be engaged as tech-driven intelligence was missing.

In the absence of phone records, the internet, encrypted chats and Google locations, counter-terror commandos went into a huddle. Security forces, who had their boots on the ground for decades, were reminded of their core competency―human intelligence. The voice of a counter-terror force commander boomed in a sparsely lit room, “Let us go back to the drawing board. Where are your assets?”

It took a month for the security forces to revive their assets, meet old friends, visit different locations, start tracing patterns and put their ears to the ground to pick up chatter. Soon enough, Cargo―the code name for the base of Jammu and Kashmir Police’s elite anti-terrorism unit―tasted success because of its relationship with the locals. “A sizeable section of the officers joining the anti-terror special operations group (in Cargo) and other units outside Srinagar belong to the terror-affected districts―Shopian, Pulwama, Rajouri, Baramulla and Kulgam―from where intelligence flows naturally into their ears,” said Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Police R.R. Swain, who is known in Pakistan’s ISI circles as a tough nut. “The lay of the land gives them the first movers’ advantage, the pulse of the people allows them the entry and the eye of the spy makes them successful.”

In September that year, security forces gunned down one terrorist, while another escaped, after a local shepherd―an asset of 20 years―informed his trusted friend in camouflage of suspicious movement around the Harmukh mountain in Ganderbal district. It was suspected that a few infiltrators were using locals as their guides to revive dormant routes in the higher reaches of Gurez to slip into the valley. If not for the human asset, the forces would have missed this crucial input.

The biggest challenge in using human intelligence is the time taken between receiving the information and deployment. “It is not a Nescafe (instant coffee) moment,” said D.P. Sinha, former Intelligence Bureau special director and secretary (security) in the cabinet secretariat. “To develop humint, security agencies have to painstakingly work on patterns, keep sources in the vicinity and sometimes even personally meet enemy targets to identify them before an operation.”

Spycraft using human assets is still the bedrock of Indian intelligence operations, be it for busting terror modules, giving the world evidence of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks or exposing transnational syndicates of Khalistani terrorists.

Sinha said the skill was not only in gathering intelligence from human assets and relaying it to security forces on the ground, but also in changing the course of the enemy, influencing their judgement and finally changing their plans. “Longterm impact can only be achieved through human networks,” he said. “A lot of propaganda by proscribed Khalistani groups in Punjab has been busted, which helped end the phase of militancy in Punjab. Human assets were used to penetrate their networks and divert their narrative. These cadres were swayed by greed for money or easy pleasures of life. But it has not been the same for ideologically driven outfits like Islamic jihadists or the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). They were much more difficult to influence.”

The spy game has to be upped when hardcore terrorists are involved. Had it not been for a human asset, the bundle of evidence in the 26/11 case would have been thinner.

PTI12_29_2022_000078A Ears to the ground: A Jammu and Kashmir Police team conducts a search in Jammu | PTI

S.M. Sahai, a retired Jammu and Kashmir Police officer, had hit upon the idea to plant Indian SIM cards on LeT operatives across the border. If any of them entered the country and used those cards, they would land in the security net. A pack of prepaid SIM cards was sent to Pakistan through a deeply embedded human asset and planted on the operatives. The monitoring began. Finally, one of the SIM cards became active during the Mumbai attacks; Indian agents could hear the Lashkar operative talking to his handlers about the strike. Raising a human asset within an enemy organisation is a dying skill. It is painstaking and can, at times, lead to disastrous results because of unpredictable human nature. But once a credible asset is raised deep inside enemy territory, it can lead to a credible and actionable trove of information.

While India might not publicly thank its intelligence community, tales of their success in thwarting terror strikes goes beyond borders. Their cooperation with counterparts in keeping the subcontinent safe is an everyday job.

It was August 2012. Indian agencies were looking for Yasin Bhatkal, the elusive top man of the Indian Mujahideen. Was he in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal, or was he hiding within the country? This was the key question vexing counter-terror officials. The Patna unit of the Intelligence Bureau was put on the job. It developed a human asset in Nepal, and photos of Malik and other key operatives were circulated. After months of intense effort, Malik was spotted. Soon, a multi-agency effort brought him near the Raxaul border in Bihar from where he was arrested. The human asset had played a crucial role.

“Within the country, humint networks have contributed in bringing peace to different theatres of conflict like countering Maoists and northeast insurgents, besides taking on militants in Kashmir, Punjab and the hinterland,” said former IB special director Yashovardhan Azad.

Speaking of the northeast, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval once infiltrated the Mizo National Front in the 1970s as a field agent when the hostile outfit was unwilling for a settlement. His underground connections and unconventional human skills saw MNF leader Laldenga talk peace, which finally stitched the Mizo Accord of 1986, ending 20 years of insurgency.

“The success of the Mizo Accord is quite evident as there has been peace in Mizoram ever since, which is in stark contrast with Manipur. That made all the difference,” said Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan (retd), former director general of the Assam Rifles.

Unlike the capacity of the surveillance devices and cameras of today, resources were not unlimited when it came to human intelligence, recalled Azad. At times, spies were literally blindfolded and thrown into situations where only their instincts and skills could out-manoeuvre the enemy.

“I remember a time when we sat in a bathroom the entire night trying to recreate certain documents before placing them back in the original spot before dawn,” said a seasoned spy. “After all, there was no photocopy and darkroom printing had to be used. The only dark room was the bathroom.”

Times, though, have changed, and spycraft is bending before the powers of artificial intelligence and new-age surveillance techniques. But whether it is creating virtual war rooms to fight propaganda (using cyber intelligence) or activating human assets in Russia through friendly spooks in distant lands, the playground for technical and human intelligence is so vast that the two can converge at several points.

“There is no competition here. One is not trying to replace the other,” said R.K. Yadav, a former R&AW officer who wrote Mission R&AW. “And wherever that has happened, it has led to calamitous outcomes. The Israelis are drawing lessons that their deeper assets are as much needed as the Iron Dome in the ongoing war with Hamas. On the other hand, the Russia-Ukraine war has shown the growing role of intelligence in achieving diplomatic and strategic goals.”

During the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the large gathering of international athletes also brought many spooks into town. The Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing network involving agencies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, was also there.

“Their representative used to meet her counterparts in North Block every day at 10am to discuss threats,” recalled a veteran spy. “One morning, they told Indian agencies that an IED (improvised explosive device) had been tested in Delhi.” An Indian mobile number that came in the intercept was shared and Indian intelligence began a secret inquiry. The number, they found, belonged to a Nepali helper in a house in western Uttar Pradesh. When the surprised Indian spies questioned her, she told them she was calling her Army-man husband while he was travelling from Bathinda to Siliguri. She was desperate to share the news of her pregnancy with him, and had said, “I got an IUD test done.” IUD, not IED. Importantly, it took a local spy in a Hindi-speaking state to bust this piece of tech intelligence.

During the covert strike on terror launch pads across the border in September 2016, the National Technical Research Organisation had handed over extensive inputs to the commandos. However, to avoid alerting the enemy, they could not carry any electronic equipment across the barbed wire fences. What made them confident was the fact that their human assets were not far away. The local villagers who guided the infiltrators were also the humint assets of security forces.

“The advent of technology and fencing of international borders are not only stopping infiltrators today, but also human assets who used to move across freely for a chit chat here and there,” said Yadav.

These networks in states such as Rajasthan, Punjab, Tripura are drying up today. And with human interactions moving onto gadgets, it is not the same any more.

Indian spies, however, have been quick to reinvent themselves and spread their resources and sources in many ways, be it technical or human intelligence. As one spy pointed out: “Even the venom-spewing 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed is no longer seen in open rallies and roadshows. This time it seems not just the chatter, but the noise has also died down.”